When a person voluntarily and intentionally helps another person to take away his life, by act or omission, this is referred to as assisted suicide. All parties, in clear cases, convey their intentions unambiguously and each individual who is involved make voluntary, informed and competent choice. The person assisting in suicide does not directly kill the person but rather he helps the person to kill himself or herself. The means of assistance adopts various forms which may include providing the means or removing the obstacles. Kopelman, 2007) Physician assisted suicide on the other hand is when a physician assists a patient in taking away his or her life.
This kind of suicide has been marked with great controversies with various factions holding viewing it an immoral act while others view it as moral. This paper argues that under various restricted circumstances, physician assisted suicide should be permitted. The act of suicide is not contrary to societal norms as had been argued by many moralists. This can be historically supported. What is known about the ancient Greek society support the idea that suicide was largely acceptable.
According to Plato, suicide becomes a justifiable and rational act if life became immoderate. In his view, intolerable constraints and painful disease were a justification enough for one to take away his or her life. Within a period of one hundred years after his death, his followers embraced suicide as a desirable way out. This attitude towards suicide extended to the Roman Empire. The Romans considered suicide with neither revulsion nor fear. To them, it was a deliberately chosen validation of the principles of life. (Weir, 1997)
During the time of Justinian, a private citizen’s suicide was not punishable if the cause was sickness, weariness of life, impatience of pain or lunacy. Since this encompassed all rational causes, all that remained was irrational suicide which had no cause and hence punishable. However, suicide was frowned upon by the Pythagorean School of philosophy which was then a minority view. Nevertheless, there did not exist throughout classical antiquity the prohibition of suicide. Christians later adopted to prohibit suicide even though they found it increasingly difficult to support this view based on the scriptures.
There are no verses in the scripture which directly condemn suicide. Christianity’s change of attitude toward suicide was largely motivated by practicalities even though the concept of sanctity of life is theologically rooted. The cult of martyrdom could have rapidly led to actual suicide in the name of religion thereby leading to a decrease in the number of faithful who at that time was badly needed by the Church. As such, the Church viewed suicide as a threat to its survival since faithfuls were dying in worrying numbers.
With regard to assisted suicide, it becomes very difficult to decide what is right especially when the permission to deliberately take away human life is involved. Under such extreme circumstances, normal moral rules are often stretched to the point of breaking down. There are various circumstances which test the moral wisdom of men such as the intentional suicide by a spy who is preventing torture for the disclosure of important military information. Many people would agree that under such circumstances, ending life would be legitimate.
As such, it largely depends on the circumstances. This dependence on circumstances brings us to the issue of physician assisted suicide. My argument is that only under carefully limited circumstances should a physician be permitted to assist an individual to end unnecessary suffering. This may include directly administering drugs which will facilitate the end of the patient’s life or any means through which the patient can use to take away his or her life. Under certain circumstances, the patient’s choice may take priority above other considerations.
For instance, when a person suffers from an incurable disease such that life to him has become series after series of pain and suffering, losing meaning and a sense of purpose, desiring nothing but death, then assisted suicide may be considered. After all considerations have been made, his choice to end his life should finally be honored. The physician’s role is to act in the best interest of the patient, and under some extreme situations, this may include assisting the patient to end his life hastily upon his request.
However, many doctors hold that their role is to enhance and preserve life and not to deliberately end it. Lhier, 2008) If the physician’s role is restricted to healing, this automatically disqualifies his role of assisting a patient to end his or her life. However, this fails to address the scope and limit of the proper functions of the physician. The challenge for the physician is finding the best way of assisting the patient to come from a state of extreme pain to a state of wellness. If this cannot be achieved, then the physician may assist the patient in ending this miserable life that is causing so much suffering for the soul. This will be a magnification of the role of the physician and not a contradiction.
At times, it becomes preferable to end suffering than extending life and hence suffering. The troubling factor in assisted death is that it involves a conflict in values. As we are bound to comprehend life, it is a wonderful adventure which promises love, pleasure, happiness and joy. However, circumstances alter it into a hopeless burden full of pain, despair and suffering. Every human individual desiring well being but finds himself locked within a body which brings nothing but pain has a right to decide and end his life. Under such circumstances, death may be preferred.
If an individual arrives at the conclusion that life brings more pain and suffering and hence desires to take it away, our duty is to grant such individuals their wish. However, we are forbidden to kill by moral imperative. Morality and religion dictates that it is wrong to kill. On the other hand, they both encourage mercy. Every effort should be invested at guarding against abuse even though at a patient’s request, it would be helpful and merciful to end his unendurable suffering. Legalization of assisted death for the sake of the victims and their loved ones is demanded of by compassion and benevolence.
The families of those individuals who have witnessed their loved ones under extreme pain provide a powerful argument in support of physician assisted death. When death has not yet brought relief for the afflicted and medical science has stretched its capability to the limit to no vain, a sense of powerlessness and despair is experienced by the members of his family as they watch in horror as a loved one is tormented by suffering. Thus, opting for death under such intolerable situations would be advantageous not only for the victim but also for the family members.
Assisted suicide is just an extension of individual autonomy which individuals seek to enact throughout their lives. (Battin et al, 2002) Every individual, in response to the many convictions which purportedly makes life worth living, act in such a way as to shape these convictions which are also held for how death should be experienced. Medical establishments only penetrate bodily ills without regarding various personal views. Assisted suicide is thus a way of bringing back the sense of control to individuals who are approaching the end of their lives.
It is an extension of the freedom to pursue life as one desires as long as it does not harm others. For the patient, assisted suicide becomes a way of customizing death. Assisted suicide apart from honoring peoples’ right of self determination is also a prudent policy. It is with this regard that physicians are needed as counselors to ensure that a patient makes a competent, unforced and rational choice. Holding high regard for the moral and legal heritage, I contend that physician assisted suicide should be looked upon with much reflection.
There are times which call for a rethought of our principles, traditions and codes so as to bring to the fore real life experiences. Those ideals which were designed with good intentions sometimes tend to degrade life, being a source of unfathomable suffering. Prohibiting physician assisted suicide may be one such thing. Individuals with extreme and rare cases can be provided with an opportunity to manage their death without jeopardizing our reverence for life. As such, a way of being merciful to the dying without labeling those who assist them as criminals can be provided.